Lately it seems the news is full of obituaries, another great artist gone. A whole generation is passing, a generation whose music, writing and painting has a huge influence on me, and often provides the soundtrack to my life. But the two people I have really cried over have been Terry Pratchett and David Bowie. Two unique creatives, larger-than-life forces, who will never write another word or play another note. Their silence is a black hole. I wanted to write my way through it and I ended up doing my first piece of fan fiction. Goodnight, David and Terry.
Most of the major magical figures have elves. You know that, right? I mean, come on. You can accept that Father Christmas needs an entire workshop to get all those presents ready for Christmas day but the Easter Bunny does it alone? The Tooth Fairy? No, they all have help. Even Death has help, although he doesn’t find many takers for the job, despite taking Elf Union members, offering competitive rates of pay and quite a bit of holiday time. Death’s elves aren’t – how can I put this? – popular. When everyone else gets together for Christmas drinks and all the others are talking about the presents they made, the Easter eggs they left for delighted children, no one wants to listen to the buzzkill. No, Death only has one elf on the pay roll. Zag was always going to be Death’s elf, having been marked at birth with unusual eyes, eyes that reflected a dark, cold swirling mass of stars in some nameless galaxy that somehow reminded any observer of their own mortality. Not really an elf Santa wanted hanging round the workshop, or the Tooth Fairy wanted to let loose with a set of pliers. So when it became time for Zag to find a job, Death was the obvious employer.
But there are times when Zag could really, really do with an assistant. Like today, when he had overslept and Death was already at the stables, where his horse wasn’t saddled with today’s list in a saddle bag. Zag fell out of bed, raced to his computer, printed off the list, kicked the printer a couple of times when it claimed it had no ink left and then ran down the path toward the stables, the list trailing from his fist.
Death was standing in the tack room, skeletal hands on his protruding hips. “Today is not a good day to be late, Zag,” said Death.
“Is it ever, sir?” asked Zag as he skidded to halt, panting.
“Today is also not a good day to be a smarty pants.”
Zag was tempted to repeat himself but decided that would definitely come under the category of being a smarty pants. He contented himself with running his cold eyes down the list and seeing if there was anything he needed to remind Death of.
“Zag, where is my saddle?”
“Saddle fitters,” said Zag, a little absentmindedly as he read the list, murmuring the names and addresses to himself.
Death swung round to look at him, his own eyes pinpoints of light in the darkness of his hood. Zag had never seen Death without his cloak but he thought Death’s eyes would be very like his own. That always gave him a nice, warm feeling in the pit of his stomach. “Why?”
“The horse kept bucking, remember? You said it was ruining your image. I had his back checked and the saddle sent for re-stuffing.”
“What am I supposed to use instead? Or do you intend for me to ride bareback today?”
“Perish the thought, sir,” said Zag. “I thought you could try out the treeless saddle today.”
For someone with no face, Death somehow managed to convey disappointment. “Treeless. I’m not sure at all about these new-fangled ideas. I’m an old-fashioned kind of guy.”
“Today was not a good day to send the saddle away for repairs.”
“Is it ever, sir?”
“Zag….” said Death, with a note of warning in his voice.
“In my defence, sir, it is getting very hard to give a different answer to those statements,” said Zag.
Death sighed and reached for the saddle.
“Perhaps, in the spirit of trying new things, you would like to use the bridle I gave you for Christmas?” asked Zag. “The one with the diamante brow band?”
“Let’s not run before we can walk, Zag.”
“Very good, sir,” said Zag, trotting after Death as he strode toward the stable, where his horse was still munching away on his breakfast.
“Anything I should know about?” asked Death as he began to tack up his pale horse.
“No, no,” said Zag, as he pulled the list through his hands, scanning the names with his starry eyes faster and faster. “Everything seems…..whoah, whoah, WHOAH, HOLD THE PHONE!”
Surprised, Death turned to look at him. Zag stared up at him stricken, his eyes filling with tears. “David Bowie is on the list!”
“DAVID BOWIE!” yelled Zag.
“I’m dead, Zag, not deaf.”
Zag could only stare at him. “But…but…you CAN’T!”
Death was quiet for a moment. Then he said, “A child’s answer as you rail against one of the greatest mysteries of existence. Tell me why I can’t. Bearing in mind that no one has ever successfully cheated Death.”
Zag’s mind spun while his mouth gasped for words like a goldfish. Snatches of melody hummed in his ear, snippets of interviews, while a crooked smile and scenes from films flashed before his eyes. In and out of this stream of music and words, skipped a young Zag, lonely little Zag who had no one to play with or talk because of his strange eyes. Zag sitting all alone in his room as his listened to music that took him away to galaxies warmer and more colourful than the one that stared back from his face. Zag listening to poetry that he was convinced was for him and him alone. He stood there, trying to turn these images into words and convince Death to turn his horse aside, just this once but the only words that came out of his mouth were:
“Can’t we make an exception? Just this once?”
Death sighed as he slipped the bridle over the grey, shimmering head.
“Why not? You’re Death, you can do what you like,” said Zag as Death put one black boot in the stirrup and mounted up.
“Why for him?” asked Death as he gathered up his reins.
“Have you ever listened to Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars?!” asked Zag.
“Look, why can’t we spare the exceptional people? The people who do nothing but good in the world, who are so talented, so visionary, they are like supernovas streaking across the sky compared to the rest of us?”
“Because even supernovas burn out, Zag,” said Death.
Death sat on his pale horse and looked down at his assistant as the tears spilled from Zag’s strange eyes and rolled down his face.
“Can’t….can’t we do something nice for him, at least?” sobbed Zag as his chest heaved. “Something special?” He reached up and put his hand on the horse’s neck. “Please?”
Death looked down at him, still and inscrutable as the pale horse fidgeted and stamped its hooves, eager to be off. Then Death reached down and covered Zag’s small hand with his long, black-gloved one.
“I’ll let him ride the horse. How’s that?”